Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.
Max is barely able to stand up by the time he says yes, and so he's outfitted with a war-surplus Russian exoskeleton that not only makes up for everything he's lost but puts him several steps above even the toughest domestic competition. But the mission grows complicated by degrees: an attempted hijacking of data directly from an executive's skull goes horribly wrong, and a power struggle on board Elysium between its president (a hatched-faced Jodie Foster) and its corporate overload (William Fichtner) threatens to escalate the tension between Earth and Elysium to the level of an all-out shooting war. Even worse is when another super-soldier, Kruger (Sharto Copley, who played the dimbulb antihero in District 9), is tasked with taking on Max and his cronies. He's as tough a cookie as they come, and there's some macabre black humor wrung out of how his corpse is regenerated for another go-round at Max, like a car getting its dents pounded out at the chop shop.
All of this has been realized with the seamlessness of modern special effects and the competence of an A-list cast. I have always liked Damon and Foster; and Copley is as-yet unexplored territory as an actor (although his turn as a self-consciously weird Continental type in Spike Lee's Oldboy was just plain wince-inducing). If nothing else, Elysium works as an effects-driven thrill ride with some human-interest ingredients — we like the characters and we want to find out more about them, and there's even an emotionally satisfying end for them personally. But it's in the bigger picture where the film falls down. For one, most egregiously, it doesn't even consider the possibility that someone, somewhere, over the course of a century, would have ever reverse-engineered one of Elysium's doc-bots. Given how tenacious and resourceful the folks down on Earth are shown as being, it seems like the kind of omission that's been specifically contrived to drive the plot as we've been given it. Maybe they just have one hell of a copy protection scheme?
But such an omission makes the "happy" ending we get seem all the more suspect: if we suddenly give everyone in the world (well, theoretically, anyway) access to health care that could keep them alive nearly forever, how will that not create even more problems than it solves? The film does touch on this peripherally, in the sense that the balance of power aboard Elysium only seems to be disrupted when someone is assassinated, but it isn't integral to the main storyline. This is what I mean by the film ending just as it is getting interesting: instead of thinking hard about how problematic the fallout from the revolutionary agenda really is, it settles for a happy ending that's only happy in the most qualified, heavy-handed way. Note that this isn't me saying universal health care is a bad idea; we could all afford to worry a little less about getting sick or breaking something. This is me saying the movie hasn't done due diligence with the full implications of its concept.
We've reached a point now where most any movie with a budget in the two- to three-figure millions can put whatever it wants on the screen without ever once breaking the illusion — which means it's no longer about what we show but how we show it. As most any kind of effect becomes a solved technical problem, they make way for the perpetually difficult problem of good storytelling and real insight into the subject at hand. Elysium is solid as entertainment, but its SF is frustrating, and in the end I found myself longing for District 9's blunter, darker vision of things.